By now, we know the George Saunders tool kit: his favored verbs, such as to “wonk.” His stylistic tics, such as “such as.” The arbitrarily capitalized phrases, copyrighted and trademarked: I CAN SPEAK! TM And we know the concerns those nouns and verbs betray: the encroachment of advertising into our emotional lives; the juxtaposition of the casual and the colloquial with the profound; the enthusiasm and earnest sincerity with which we lie to ourselves and others. In earlier collections like CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000), Saunders indulged a fascination with melancholy ghosts, death-filled theme parks, and near-future dystopias governed by commandment-slogans like Robust Economy, Super Moral Climate! These settings were crutches, if delightfully novel ones—“a mechanical way to force me into those weird situations where some voice has to come,” as Saunders once put it.
But you could know all this and still know almost nothing about Tenth of December, Saunders’s new story collection. It’s almost hard to fathom how a writer this good could get better. But he has. A lot better, even. For a while, SaundersLand was its own distant planet. He was a maximalist—Barry Hannah raised on Saturday-morning cartoons and optimism instead of alcohol and anger. His early writing was pleasingly alien but didn’t always connect. His sentences described off-kilter worlds we could admire but never hope to fully live in: “The Mrs. likes me because after she taught me a few obscure 1800s ballads and I parlayed them into Individual Achievement Awards, I bought her a Rubik’s Cube,” he wrote in “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” Even as recently as 2006’s In Persuasion Nation Saunders was still off freewheeling in space, thinking up heartrending vignettes about latex baby masks that speak for the children suffocating underneath them, gulags of product-testing teenagers, genocide-themed reality-television shows.
He’s still there, sort of—at the heart of Tenth of December is an astonishing story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” about a prison colony of murderers who become lab rats, victims of a disinterested evil far worse than their own. It’s as sinister and strange as anything Saunders has ever done. But the new collection is otherwise tellingly earthbound. A veteran returns from abroad to find his home turned into another kind of unfriendly country. One mother decides to call Child Welfare on another. A “pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs” plunges into a frozen lake. These are stories we recognize. They concern people we know. Where once Saunders showed us ourselves in dizzyingly foreign worlds, he’s now showing us the dizzyingly foreign worlds in our homes and in ourselves.
In “Victory Lap,” a dreamily cheerful girl, Alison, is kidnapped by a man with a knife, only to be rescued by her unprepossessing teenage neighbor. It’s a story about how three very different people might see the same event—which is to say it’s about empathy. But more so, it’s about a kind of contingent heroism, about a moment when anything could happen and the right thing does. “Is life fun or scary? Are people good or bad?” Alison wonders, before concluding: “To do good, you just have to decide to do good.”
Most of the stories in Tenth of December are like this: They grapple in a forthright way with forthright moral questions. Saunders has always been a daring writer, but here he’s trying something very risky indeed; he’s going to tell you exactly what he’s thinking about. He might even go so far as to offer a prescription. He’s gambling that he can sacrifice a crucial creative ambiguity—what does this story mean?—at the altar of his own otherworldly talent, wagering that he can show you his cards and win the hand anyway.
In “Escape from Spiderhead,” Jeff, a killer, is imprisoned in a lab where he’s been injected with chemicals and made to feel things—love, lust, great pain. He’s given new abilities: better vision, better words to articulate what he’s seeing. Such as: “Basically, what I was feeling was: Every human is born of man and woman. Every human, at birth, is, or at least has the potential to be, beloved of his/her mother/father. Thus every human is worthy of love.” The story ends with Jeff making a considerable sacrifice in order to spare another person pain. Life is scary. People are bad. Jeff decides to do good.
So does the terminally ill man in the title story, who interrupts his own suicide attempt to save the hapless kid who was trying to save him. In “Home,” a man returns from committing war crimes abroad to a family that he doesn’t understand and that doesn’t care to understand him. He tries to light the home his mother is being evicted from on fire: “Then held a match to the carpet on the stairs and, once it started burning, raised a finger, like, Quiet, through me runs the power of recent dark experience.” He’s about to do worse—“What are you going to stop me with? Your girth? Your good intentions?”—then stops, and asks for mercy instead: “Okay, okay, you sent me, now bring me back. Find some way to bring me back, you fuckers, or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known.”
But let’s make sure not to moralize too much; the stories in Tenth of December aren’t just about, as Saunders once put it, “making a representation of goodness and a representation of evil and then having those two run at each other full-speed.” They aren’t just about right and wrong. They are also about people doing the best with what they are given. They’re about competing, sometimes conflicting definitions of compassion and good citizenship. In their careful attention to the question marks we put at the end of declarative statements, our verbal tics, our vacuous self-justifications, Saunders’s stories exemplify the compassion they plead for. In “Escape from Spiderhead,” one convict has a tattoo on his neck of “a rat that had just been knifed and was crying. But even through its tears it was knifing a smaller rat, who just looked surprised.” This is Saunders making a point about cycles of violence and victimization, sure. But mostly this is Saunders telling a joke. He’s funny because he loves us. He loves us because we’re funny.
Zach Baron last wrote for Bookforum about Stephen Dixon.